Against All Odds
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Winter 1996
"Popovich is like (Pro Bowl Player) Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Bills," said Butch Davis, head football coach of the nationally ranked Miami Hurricanes. "He's a terrific little athlete with a tremendous amount of fire. He's going to have a good career here."
No, Jeff Popovich is not a junior or a senior at Miami. He is a true freshman. No, Jeff was not heavily recruited. He was not recruited. No, Jeff is not a scholarship player. He is a walk-on. Jeff has battled against the odds. The summer before last he was told by his doctors that he would never play football again. Now, sit back and get ready to be inspired by the Jeff Popovich story.
Jeff began lifting in the 8th grade with his older brother. The following year he entered Sabino High School to be with Jeff Scurran, BFS Clinician and the Sabercats head football coach. It was there he began lifting hard trying to build up his 5'6", 130 lb. frame. As a sophomore, Jeff started at Strong Safety and then became the Sabercats starting quarterback as a junior.
Jeff tried basketball and baseball but found that he had a knack for pole vaulting. In his sophomore year, he cleared 13 feet and was 6th in the state. Naturally, as he began clearing 14 plus and set a school record as a junior, he had dreams of becoming a State Champion. Those dreams turned into an ugly nightmare on one jump during practice as he came down on the box and caught a cleat on the edge.
Jeff broke a finger in his freshman year and broke his hand but played football anyway during his sophomore year. However, nothing could have prepared him or his coaches for the breaks in his lower leg on that practice pole vault.
"It was devastating," said Coach Scurran. Jeff was an Academic All-State quarterback as a junior and a 1st team All-Conference quarterback. It was devastating for the coaches, the team, his family, but most of all Jeff who had Upper Limit dreams for the future.
"My right leg was the one," remembered Jeff. "I broke both lower leg bones. One bone broke in two pieces in three places. The other bone broke in half. My shin bone came out the lower side of my leg. The doctors cut a hole at the top of my knee and inserted an 18-inch rod down through my lower leg. Then they put in three screws to hold it all together. That was May 8th of 1995."
The doctors told Jeff that his football days were over but he never believed them. Jeff was on crutches for three months but he always did whatever he could to stay in shape and followed his rehabilitation guidelines. It was mid-August and you couldn't keep him off the practice field. Jeff would watch, learn, encourage and hope.
Eight games went by and then the amazed doctors gave him the go ahead to play. Jeff played the last two regular games and three more as he led the Sabercats to a state-final finish. They just narrowly lost to Saguaro High School, the eventual State Champions, who had a BFS Clinic the previous year.
After the season, an unusual decision was made for Jeff's football career. Usually, the rod meant to hold the bone together is left in for life but the doctors felt that if they took the rod out at this time, the bone would heal even stronger. Last December the rod was pulled out and Jeff was on crutches for one more month.
Jeff was selected to play in the Arizona All-Star game and for the 1995 Perseverance Award along with being named on the First Team Bigger, Faster, Stronger High School All-American Football team. He was active in volunteer work with the Arthritis Foundation and DARE Program. He had a 3.9 GPA and would graduate in the top 10 percent of his class with good SAT and ACT scores. However, because of his injury and being only 5'10", 180, college coaches did not knock on Jeff's door. Although he did recover well enough to take 2nd in State in the 4 X 100 in track.
"I did not want to go to a junior college," said Jeff. "I wanted a great education and a great football school. My brother who played Devision I-AA ball was an All-American at the University of San Diego felt I could play Division-I football but no one wanted me. I wanted to go outside the state and I wanted to go to a school which had a shot at winning a national championship."
As fate would have it, Coach Scurran met with Don Soldinger, the running back coach at the University of Miami. Don was a BFS Clinician before he took the job at Miami. Hence, the connection. Coach Soldinger told Coach Scurran that Miami needed a quarterback. Soon, after a visit, Jeff decided to walk-on at Miami. "I got a partial academic scholarship," said Jeff with a shrug, "but I'm paying for everything else. I had college coaches, after I made my decision to go to Miami, tell me that I was too small and that I would never play. They flat out told me I'd get my fanny kicked. When I told people I was going to Miami, they'd say, 'Miami of Ohio?' No one thought I was serious about the Miami Hurricanes."
Jeff reported to practice last August with all the other freshman. During the first practice, all the players were tested. "I'd do scout drills," said Jeff. "Hand-off drills. I expected the worst but it wasn't all that bad. All the walk-ons got different shoulder pads than the scholarship players but everyone ate together.
"They shaved all my hair off. I didn't like that but then I started holding on extra points. I guess they liked me because they moved me to second team holder. After that, they moved me to wide receiver for playing purposes. That was the first idea I had that they were looking at me."
One day before the first game of this season. Head Coach Butch Davis yelled to assistant Coach Chuck Pagano, "Get some second-stringers in there!" Jeff remembers thinking "Put me in, put me in!" Coach Pagano turned around and saw Jeff and said, "How about Pop?" Coach Davis said, "Yeah! Put in Popovich." Jeff grinned, "I will never forget the Head Coach putting me in. That was so cool."
Coach Davis believes in playing true freshmen. "It creates great team chemistry, gives us depth and gives the players invaluable experience. The biggest question for all freshman is whether they're mentally ready. If they go into a game, can we do what we need to do to win without cutting down on the game plan because they don't understand everything?"
Jeff practiced at quarterback, receiver, defensive back and special teams. Then it came time for the first game against Memphis. Jeff's mother and father watched the game on television from their home in Arizona. They erupted with screams when they saw him run onto the field.
"First we saw him on the sideline," Jeff's mom said. "We thought it was great that he made the traveling squad. But to see him play? We thought that would take at least three years." Jeff was so excited he called his parents from the locker room. He got in 8-10 plays. "I hope I can get into another game," Jeff said from the locker room. "I'd love to catch a pass."
Next was Miami's first home game in the Orange Bowl. What a thrill for Jeff, a walk-on, with no expectations to run on the field for the first time. He was on the Punt Pressure team and they did their job by blocking the Citadels' first punt. A storybook ending to a life just beginning.
"I hope to get a scholarship in the future," said Jeff. "I'll have to fight like anyone else. I will workout really hard to get bigger, faster and stronger." Jeff learned how to do just that at Sabino High School from Coach Jeff Scurran. "Coach Scurran is a great coach and person. He always cared about me and his players. The football schemes he'd put together were amazing. He is so smart. Coach Scurran developed me to my potential. He taught me a great work ethic. I was ahead of the game. I was